The Last War
A short story about time travel
By Kalin Ringkvist
(Read all of The Last War - short story about time travel on Kindle)
(Read all of The Last War - short story about time travel on Kindle)
Dropping his pants on the floor, Nathan Daneer snatched the robe lying on the bench and hastily threw it around himself. He glanced around the public bathroom. Fortunately no one had come in while he was changing.
Now safely within his long white robe, his mind came back to the task at hand. The greatest moment in my life, he thought, and all I can think about is hiding my body from onlookers. He stood, pulling the robe tight, checking to make sure it fit properly.
I will be the first human to travel through time. He put his hand to his chest, feeling the bass of his pounding heart. Walking from the lavatory, Nathan picked lint from his robe, trying to distract his mind from what was about to happen.
He stepped into the cold hall. No reporters here, thankfully. He’d feared that one might sneak through security to question him on his way to the jump initiator. Halfway to his destination he stopped and listened to the whir of the air conditioning.
The situation seemed wrong somehow. Nathan was an historian, with some education in chemistry, and minimal experience in other sciences. He knew next to nothing about time travel. The experts in that field had attempted to explain the concept to him, all he remembered now was a jumble of words and phrases–plyomorph; breakdown of chemical-space connections; structure map; chemical stabilizer. He understood little of it, but almost preferred it that way.
Shivering, he restarted his trek to the Jump Site. He checked his hair as he walked. There would be nearly one hundred people, all centered on him. He must look his best.
Nathan reached the end of the hall, breathed deeply of the clear, filtered air, and opened a windowless steel door.
He saw first the audience, sitting in rows, above the equipment. The auditorium surrounded the main floor, offering no place to hide from the reporters. Every other time he’d been in here the viewing area was empty. At least they had no video equipment. The jump was being recorded but only for official documentation, not to be thrown out on the daily news.
The room quieted after several seconds. Nathan scanned the area, starting with the audience, moving down to the scientists and equipment, ending with the silver canister and lead door. Soon he’d enter that canister and be pummeled with electric shocks and thrown to wherever and whenever it decided. The world’s first real time machine.
Steve, the scientist in charge of the department, said without looking up from his computer screen, “Eight minutes, Nathan.”
“Right,” Nathan replied, trying to act professional. Noticing his legs tremble, he locked his knees.
“Are you ready to hop in?” Steve asked, glancing up. “You still have a few minutes if you’ve changed your mind about giving a couple preliminary interviews.”
“No thanks. I’d rather wait until after I’m back before I interview. I want to save the excitement.” Nathan feared that if he interviewed before, he would appear nervous and incompetent.
Wanting to move away from the audience’s direct gaze, he said, “Why don’t I just wait in the Initiator.” Nathan moved toward the door, flipped the latch, and attempted to pull it open. After a moment, an assistant ran to help and together they wrenched it open. Nathan stepped in.
“Don’t forget the robe,” Steve called to him. “You can’t jump with anything more than your own flesh.”
Nathan scowled through the dimness of the inside of the Jump Initiator. “I’ll take it off in here,” he said, backing into the corner to reduce the possibility of someone seeing him through the doorway. He tossed the robe out and a second later someone pushed the door shut.
Sitting naked in the dark, he began shaking again. This shouldn’t be happening, he thought. I should be braver than this.
He had worked hard to get to this point. Rigorous studying in college and high school maintained his “A” average. He stayed home Friday and Saturday nights instead of drinking with his roommates. He’d never touched a cigarette, refused to be in the same room with any illegal drug. Nathan had been going to a gym four days a week since his sophomore year at in High School. Through his years of schooling, he sometimes wondered why he pushed himself so hard. He couldn’t see any specific goal, and never dreamed he’d be here, ready to leap through time. But it was all worth it. He would be famous–assuming he made it back from the jump. He didn’t know if fame was what he’d been working for, but he liked the idea.
Time dragged on. Nathan found himself worrying about what it would be like after his return. He would not be gone for more than a second from the audience’s perspective. The scientists had not determined how long it would seem to him. He hoped it would be at least a week. Nathan was not anxious to stand in front of the crowds and field questions.
He waited, huddled on the floor, trying to control his nervousness. Eventually he felt a light vibration and heard a whirring sound. The shaking increased in violence, the sound in volume and pitch. A second later a blinding light forced Nathan to throw his arm across his eyes. A sharp pain started in the pit of his stomach and spread evenly outward, encompassing his entire body. He fell limp on the floor and his mind went blank.
______ ______ ______
Two bloodshot eyes beat down, unmoving. Long, matted hair hung almost in Nathan’s face. As he began to focus, he saw a man towering above him.
A rock dug into his back and he squirmed, rolling to his side and forcing himself to his knees, and a long moment later, his feet. The man with the long hair stared at the ground for a moment, then slowly brought his eyes up to meet Nathan’s.
“You dropped out of nowhere,” the man commented in a slow, heavily accented voice.
“It was probably your imagination,” Nathan told him, glancing around at the surrounding area. Looking down he saw his still naked body and his hands instinctively shot down to cover himself.
“Where did you come from,” asked the man.
“I’m not sure,” Nathan replied, giving the explanation he had rehearsed before he’d jumped. “I think I hit my head. Tell me, do you know where I could find some cheap clothing?”
The man looked down, waiting a long while to answer, as if the question were amazingly difficult. “Well, I don’t know. I’d give you mine, except I’m wearing them right now. Do you want to come with me to look for some?” He pointed toward a block of buildings a short distance away.
“If it isn’t too much bother, could you go by yourself? I’d rather not wander around in public like this.”
“I could go by myself if it matters to you.”
“Thank you,” Nathan said. “I truly appreciate this. I’ll pay you back. I have no money, but I’ll find a way. Promise.”
The man nodded slowly. “What’s your name?”
“Michael,” Nathan lied. “Michael Jonston.” Nathan wondered silently if this man had any idea what was going on. He had a glazed-over appearance. The man’s eyes never seemed to focus entirely, and his voice had a distant, uncomprehending tone. Nathan questioned the man’s ability to find him clothing.
“Michael-Jonston. Is that all one word?”
“Two words; but you can call me Mike. Listen, I really need some clothes. I don’t like standing around in the cold, and where people can see me. I don’t mean to be rude, but could you please hurry.”
“Clothes. I remember. My name’s Tib, by the way.” He waved, turned clumsily, and started toward the buildings a short walk away.
Nathan moved toward a nearby tree, and huddled beneath its branches, trying his best to cover himself entirely. A small stream ran nearby, making a soothing gurgling sound. He scanned the area, noticing the strange absence of litter. The air tasted similar to the artificially filtered air he’d breathed in the research center before his jump. Everything in the park appeared clear, clean, and pure. He glanced back over his shoulder at the buildings. Strange that it’s this close to an urban center, he thought.
Waiting, he looked around, trying to see how things had changed since his time. He wondered how far he had leapt, and where he was. But there was no way of finding that out until Tib came back. He needed clothes before he could function.
After what he determined to be a ten to fifteen minute span of time, Nathan began to wonder if Tib was coming back. He forced himself to a standing position, dreading the idea of entering a public area in his state. Turning slowly around the tree, he felt a hand suddenly grip his arm.
He screamed instinctively and jumped back.
Tib let out a cry also, threw his arms into the air, scattering clothing, and staggered backward, falling in the grass.
Nathan ducked behind the tree as Tib began a long gale of high pitched laughter.
A moment later Nathan peeked around the tree and held out a hand. Tib threw him a pair of pants. Nathan stepped into them as quickly as possible. He took the shirt from Tib and pulled it on, then collected shoes from the ground and forced his feet into them. For a moment they seemed stiff on the inside and too big but they automatically filled in to fit more comfortably.
Tib’s laughter died. “Did I frighten you?” he asked.
Nathan gave a quick nod.
“I was going to ask The System who you are. The problem is, I’ve forgotten your name.”
“My name’s Mike.”
“Will that work for identification?”
“Actually, I’m probably not listed. I don’t think you’d be able to find out anything about me. You see, I’m from out of town.”
Tib nodded. “What shift are you on?” He cocked his head. “I can’t tell from looking at you.”
“Up or down?” Tib asked.
“I’m not sure. Somewhere in between, I suppose.”
“What a coincidence!” Tib said sarcastically. “I’m on my way down too.”
Nathan stared, wondering whether or not to ask Tib to explain what he was talking about, but decided that that would be a mistake. He needed to fit into this world as best he could.
“I know a woman who likes to make clothes on her low cycles.” Tib began a slow walk parallel to the stream. Nathan followed. “That’s where I found your wardrobe. I could have just found an outlet station, but computer generated clothes are always so boring. I figured you deserved something with a little more personality.”
“Thanks for your consideration,” Nathan replied. “You really didn’t need to go through all the trouble.”
Tib kicked a pebble lying in the grass. “Tell me where you come from,” he said.
“I come from overseas. I don’t think you’d know the place.”
“Do you fly planes?” Tib asked.
“No,” replied Nathan. “I rode in one over here, but I can’t fly.”
“What do you do?”
“I’m an historian.”
“Do you study the war?”
“No. I deal mostly with the early twenty-first century.”
Tib cocked his head and glanced at Nathan. “Wouldn’t that be the early stages of The Last War?… no… the war was in full swing by the year 2000.”
Nathan nodded reluctantly. “I suppose so.” War?He thought. This guy doesn’t seem to have much of a grasp on reality…I don’t remember any wars…
“The pretend war, they call it, right?” Tib asked. “Because everyone thought it was make-believe until the bombs exploded. Right?”
“Sure,” Nathan replied. They continued walking, silently. Several moments later, Nathan asked, “Where are we going?”
“You want to have a destination?” Tib sounded baffled by the idea.
“Not necessarily. I figured you had someplace in mind.”
“Are you hungry?” Tib asked.
“A little, I guess.”
“Let’s go find food.” Tib turned away from the stream and headed toward the town. After a moment, he asked, “Do you have someplace to stay tonight? The woman who makes the clothes–her name’s Bethana–has a permanent, and she’s invited me to sleep there tonight. You could come along if you want.”
“That’s very kind of you. I think I may take you up on that.”
After a short walk they found themselves in a large room in the nearby building. Tables dotted the floor, each set between four cushioned chairs. They found menus set into the tops of the tables. Each item had its own number, which at first glance, Nathan thought to be the prices. Then he noticed they were in numerical order, starting at one, up to four-hundred twenty. Most of the items were familiar: hamburgers, pasta, steak, tacos et cetera.
Nathan watched Tib enter his order into a keypad in the center of the table. Then he put his own in without difficulty. With only the number pad and an Enter button, the system wasn’t hard to figure out. He ordered a plain burger, something called potato pads, and water. He didn’t want Tib to pay too much for him.
A small droid shaped like a trash can delivered the meals on a tray. Nathan tried to watch the little machine to see how advanced it was. It simply rolled out, lowered the tray onto the table and left, not leaving Nathan with a clear idea of the technology.
He tasted the food and began eating.
“What year is this?” he said, thinking he had better risk the question. It was the one thing he truly needed to know before being thrown back to his own time. He had no idea when that would be.
“Year?” said Tib.
“I seem to be forgetting things lately,” Nathan replied. “What year is it?”
Tib paused several seconds, cocking his head, before answering, “A year is three hundred sixty-some odd days.”
Nathan nodded, grinning foolishly and went back to his meal.
“The year,” said another, unfamiliar voice, “is 2253 by your calendar, Nathan.”
His head popped up from his burger. He searched for the voice, and found a small speaker set into the table.
“Did it just answer you, Mike?” asked Tib. He glanced around momentarily. “Why did you call him Nathan?”
“That is his real name,” the voice answered from the table. “He lied to you because he feels that telling you his real story would be damaging to your life or your timeline.”
“I didn’t understand any of that,” Tib said.
“Nathan comes from more than two hundred years in the past. He is one of the few people who have traveled through time. He is here to learn about our culture so that he can report back to his own time, and tell how the human race has progressed.”
Tib snapped his fingers and pointed, so suddenly that Nathan jumped back. “I told you you fell from the sky. You simply appeared and fell. I’m the first person you met in this time, aren’t I?”
Nathan nodded. “How did you know who I am?” he asked. “And who is it that I’m talking to?”
“I have detailed files about you, Nathan,” replied the voice. “You were quite famous after returning from this timeline. To your second question, I am the central, computerized intelligence that runs this society.”
“I truly must introduce you to my friends,” said Tib. “Did you still want to stay with me and Bethana tonight?”
Tib hurried through the rest of his meal, leaving more than a third of it uneaten. He stood up and asked Nathan, “Are you ready to go? I’m quite anxious for everyone to get to know you.”
The two stood up and Tib took Nathan’s hand, as if he was afraid of losing his new friend. Nathan glanced around nervously, wondering if anyone would stare at them. Nobody seemed to notice. He tried to squirm his way out of Tib’s grip but Tib would not release him. Nathan finally gave in and held hands with Tib as they walked hurriedly out of the restaurant. He could not see any way that Tib had paid for the meals.
“So tell me, now that the secret’s out,” said Nathan, “what is this war you speak of? You said that it started around my time, but I don’t know anything about a war. It seems that it was a fairly peaceful time I left behind.”
“It was the first war won through peaceful means,” said Tib. “Many fatalities; but only on the winning side, our side. Ironic, isn’t it? It wasn’t a war like you would think of war.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You’re talking in riddles,” said Nathan.
“I want to know which side you were on–not that I think you’d do anything if you happened to be opposed to the revolution. Maybe it’s just that I like playing games with you.”
Nathan scanned Tib, a confused look on his face. “You’re acting more coherent than you were earlier. Did seeing me fall from the sky stun you so much? You’re not as giggly anymore either.”
“I told you,” said Tib. “I’m on my way down.”
“Okay, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“You will… probably.”
“And why are you holding my hand?”
Tib stopped walking and looked up at Nathan. “To see how you’d react. Was it uncommon for two men to hold hands?”
“Uncommon I suppose,” Nathan replied. “Not unheard of.” He wanted to let go. “Kind of weird, I–”
Tib released him, but clapped both hands against Nathan’s ears and wrenched his head forward. Their lips touched and Tib held them together.
Too stunned to react, Nathan’s arms stiffened, sticking out to his sides. He didn’t fight back until he felt Tib’s tongue creeping out. Jumping backward, he shoved Tib’s shoulders. They stood apart, staring at each other.
“What about that?” asked Tib.
Nathan closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and shuddered.
Tib giggled. After a moment he turned, and started walking again. “Come on,” he waved.
Taking a long pause, Nathan started after him. Has the world been taken over by homosexuals? he thought.
The two walked side by side, a short distance apart for several blocks. Tib led Nathan into a stone building designed with elaborate carvings on the walls. They rode an elevator to the fourth floor and walked down a hall that had a subtle and rather unusual bend.
Without knocking, they entered a door on the right, into a lavishly furnished apartment. Vases, artificial flowers and other knick-knacks lined shelves on the walls. Nathan quickly noticed a pair of bright yellow pants nailed to the wall.
“We have returned, Bethana,” Tib shouted.
An overemphasized squeal came from around the corner. A chubby woman in a white frilly blouse and heavily beaded brown pants shuffled into the room. “Darling!” she called, “you have come back.” She approached Tib and spread her arms as if to give him a hug but pulled away, touched his cheek, turned and put a hand on Nathan’s hip, all in one fluid motion.
“I like the outfit,” she said after a moment’s pause. “I gave you some of my rejects because I don’t know you. But you wear them so well.”
She pulled her knee up to her chest and stomped hard on his left foot. “Feel that?” she asked.
He looked down, paused, and said, “No, actually.”
“The shoes are pretty well made.”
Nathan noticed Tib wandering across the room, toward a black panel set into one wall. “We shall alter the music slightly,” he commented, almost to himself.A soft, rolling techno music played in the background.
“Don’t touch it!” shouted the woman. She turned back to Nathan. “You’re Mickey right?”
“Mike, actually.” He’d practiced so much that he was not accustomed to giving his real name.
She nodded. “Tib’s not good with names.”
The background music changed to a pounding beat.
“I told you not to change it! Now you’ve gone and ruined everything.” She turned back.
“To tell the truth, my name’s Nathan.”
“Oh. Nathan,” she said. “Maybe Tib’s just stupid. I’m Bethana.”
Tib dropped to the floor and rolled away from the panel. He sat cross-legged and pointed. “He lied to me.”
“Where’s your bathroom?” asked Nathan, suddenly wanting to get away for awhile.
“You would like to bathe yourself?” Bethana asked.
“I need to urinate.”
“You want to bathe in urine? I don’t know if I want you doing that in the place where I live.”
“No, that’s not what I want to do,” Nathan replied.
She laughed. “Down the hall.”
Entering the room, he saw a metal toilet, looking like something on an airplane, a bathtub like any from his own time and a sink with no faucet handles. The thick carpeting did not end at the door. Stepping in, he closed the door and examined the knob. After a second he said to himself, “Does this lock?”
“Locks are rare,” came the same computerized voice he’d heard in the restaurant.
“How do you keep people from bursting in on you?” asked Nathan.
“Most people aren’t concerned with that. If you like, I will announce to anyone passing the door that you do not wish to be disturbed.”
It took Nathan several minutes of standing in front of the toilet before he was able to urinate. He thought there might be a computerized eye watching him as well as the voice. It made him nervous.
Finally, he finished, and turned around to wash his hands. The water came on automatically when he put his hands underneath the faucet. The liquid soapdispensor and air dryer were also automatic. It reminded him of a particular McDonald’s.
As he dried his hands, the door opened and Tib stepped in.
Nathan jumped back, startled by the noise.
“You ‘don’t want to be disturbed’?” said Tib. “You’re pretty funny sometimes. I’m going to sleep now. I’ll see you in about eight to ten hours. Tell Bethana to give you a tour. She’s jumping back on the cycle in twenty minutes so you want to catch her soon.” Tib turned and leapt from the room. He paused a moment to close the door. Giving a sarcastic wink, he said, “So you won’t be disturbed.”
Nathan sighed and leaned against the wall. “Tell me, why are there no locks?”
“People may get locked inside,” replied the voice. “Few people care about privacy.”
“What about on regular doors? Is there no problem with thieves?”
“There is still a problem with people stealing, though not as much as in your time. The penalty for such an act is not drastic.”
“What is the penalty?” asked Nathan.
“Thievery results in the loss of between one and thirty cycles, plus the return of the stolen items.”
He heard a pounding on the door. “Are you going to come out here and keep me company?” called Bethana.
“Yeah.” Nathan pushed himself off the wall and exited the lavatory.
Bethana stood against the far wall, grinning. “Did you enjoy your bath?”
“Yeah,” said Nathan, figuring that would be easier.
She nodded as he walked past her.
“Tib told me a funny story about you,” Bethana said, following him. “I’m not sure if I believe him.”
“I come from the past. I’m here on a mission to collect information about our future.”
“So you discussed this joke beforehand?”
“What?” replied Nathan.
“You guys are trying to trick me. You don’t think you can get away with that on my low cycle?”
He shrugged. “Well, you know: we had to try.” Having a problem with lies, he couldn’t help smiling.
She shook her head. “Silly people.”
They wandered into the main room, and Nathan asked, “Tib said you’d give me a tour of the place.”
Though it was a large apartment by Nathan’s standards, it only took five minutes for her to show him around. At the end of the tour he decided there was no logical reason to hide who he was. “Explain to me what a ‘cycle’ is,” he said.
“What do you mean? Do you want me to talk in philosophical terms because I’m not very good at that?”
“Just explain to me what this ‘cycle’ is that everyone seems to be on. You see, I truly come from a time long ago when we didn’t have these things.”
“The cycle goes up and down and back again,” Bethana replied.
“That doesn’t make any sense to me. How long is a cycle?”
“Up usually lasts ten to fifteen hours depending on the way you look at it. Down lasts for the remainder of the day.”
“So what exactly is ‘up’ and ‘down’?” asked Nathan.
“Up is when you… well… feel up, like energized; down, is when it all leaves your system and you reenter the physical world. I feel like I’m explaining this to a five year old.”
“Tib said he was coming down, but he looked fine.”
“He’ll look better when he goes up again,” she replied. She walked to the music control panel and turned the volume up. “Would you care to dance?” she asked, reaching out a hand.
“I’d like you to explain the cycle in more detail first,” Nathan told her.
She sighed. Her arms slumped to her side. Checking her watch, she said, “It’s almost time for me to start the cycle. Maybe you’ll understand if you watch.”
The front door opened suddenly, startling Nathan. Two men and a woman entered, giggling loudly. They all seemed to crowd through the door at once. The men both had glazed looks, like their minds were in other worlds.
Bethana spread her arms, squealed with glee and ran to them, hugging each one. They did not appear surprised by her reaction. “We’re going to have quite a party tonight,” she said. “Some friends of mine should be showing up later. How long would you all like to stay?”
“Probably until tomorrow morning,” said the woman.
“Okay. What are your names? I’m Bethana. This is Nathan.”
“I’m Karin,” said the woman. “I met you a couple months ago at a friend’s house.”
“I don’t remember you.”
Karin shrugged. “This is Sam and Alph.” She pointed at the others.
Bethana nodded. “I was just about to inject. Nathan here claims to be from the past. He rode a time machine.” She laughed. “He knows nothing of our cycles, so I’m going to show him, maybe give him a ride while I’m at it.” She pinched Nathan’s stomach. Nathan cringed backward.
A second later, Sam sprinted across the room, bumping Bethana on his way to the yellow pants hanging on the wall. He stood and examined them for several seconds, then proceeded to rip them from the wall and drop them on the floor. He unbuckled his own pants and dropped them also. Nathan turned away in disgust when he realized Sam wore nothing underneath.
This must be a dream, thought Nathan. That’s the only explanation. The time travel didn’t work and now I’m stuck in some dreamland that I created in my own mind. I hope they pull me out soon.
When Nathan looked back, Sam was wearing the yellow pants, dancing, thrusting his pelvis.
“Well,” Bethana said as if nothing strange happened, “I’m ready to start my cycle again. Come along, Nathan.” They walked into the adjoining room, and in one corner, up on a counter, sat a bank of four small instruments that looked like miniature dust-busters. She picked one up and played with a few buttons on the back. A holographic screen appeared, listing numerous unrecognizable names.